A Tribute to David L. Schindler: Teacher and Friend

I have never met a man in whom theory and practice were so perfectly wed. Schindler didn’t just speak about contemplation; he contemplated.

David Schindler with his godson Finn in December 2013. (Photo courtesy of the author)

The theologian David L. Schindler once wrote that:

[W]e must first recognize that our being originates as a gift: it has always first been given to us by God, and indeed by others in God. It follows that human life and action, in their innermost nature and destiny, are, and are meant to become, responses to this gift of love that consists in God’s always loving us first, and indeed, in Jesus Christ, in loving us unto a suffering death.

Simply put: “Love is that which first brings each thing into existence, and that in and through and for which each thing continues in existence.” This is true of all creation. At its core, “reality is a gift that is always first to be received.”

For Schindler, these were not mere abstractions. They were the deepest of realities which guided his every step in this world. Schindler, the Dean Emeritus of the John Paul II Institute in Washington D.C., passed away on Wednesday, November 16, 2022, at the age of 79. His death leaves his family, friends, and numerous students bereft but also deeply grateful for the gift of his life, his kindness and humor, and the prodigious holy intellect he put at the service of the Church and Christ. For Schindler, everything was a gift and because he lived his life in gracious response to that gift, he was a tremendous gift to the world. He helped us see more deeply and clearly.

Indeed, I can think of no one else who has shaped my thinking more than Schindler—and I am confident there are many others who would say the same.

My own friendship with Schindler began on a beautiful fall evening in 2005 at the 50th birthday party of a mutual friend. Schindler was late because our beloved Fighting Irish, resurgent after a few down years, were playing the Purdue Boilermakers that night. Schindler snuck into the party late because he had been watching the first half of the game at a bar. At the party, we were seated next to each other and the small radio I’d smuggled in to check the score periodically allowed me to update Schindler on where things stood.

Our friendship deepened when I faced an open-heart surgery that Schindler had endured twice in his life. I asked him to lunch to discuss what lay before me. We met up at the old Colonel Brooks’ Tavern, the only passable restaurant in those days near Catholic University. Three hours into our lunch, we had yet to talk about the heart surgery, but our friendship was solidified. Later that summer, while I lay in Johns Hopkins Hospital recovering from surgery, Schindler made sure to visit and check in on me. He continued to do so after I returned home. I never officially was his student (though I did use my convalescence to audit his class), just a person who happened to be seated next to him at a birthday party. The generosity he showed me was multiplied many times over with all manner of people who came into his life. God’s love is superabundant and Schindler mirrored this in his own life.

While there have been and will be many more encomia for Schindler, I wanted to highlight just a few of the lessons he taught me over the years. Schindler had an incredible ability to go beyond conventional answers and pat explanations. He modeled that we should always push deeper into things, to discover things as they are rather than as they seem. I cannot tell you how many conversations I had with Schindler over the years where he exploded the governing assumptions that I—and the world—brought to bear on a particular question, showing me a whole new and deeper way of understanding the question.

In particular, Schindler demonstrated to me that all things have an interior logic—that things aren’t merely neutral tools to be used for good or ill, but that they have a certain internal ordering that already shapes the way they are employed and work upon us. The paradigmatic example to which Schindler pointed was the cell phone, especially in its “smart” incarnation. Here was a device designed specifically to allow a person to communicate while not being fully present to one’s interlocutor. It allows someone to drive, surf the web, post on social media, all while “conversing” with the person on the other end of the call. This cannot but have an effect on the user. As Schindler wrote in his masterful book, Ordering Love: Liberal Societies and the Memory of God (Eerdmans, 2011):

[T]echnology in its very hardware always embodies a meaning, to which we need to attend. The computer, for example, reinforces experience as instant acquisition and manipulation of useful information. The cell phone enables listening to someone on the way to doing something else, to the detriment of the patient attention characteristic of true personal communication.

Schindler’s point was not a moral one or to demonize or even “to reject” such technologies but “only to point out that, insofar as our patterns of communication take shape through their use, we dissolve the patient capacity necessary to see and appreciate genuinely—in other words, to love—particular persons and things in their naturally given truth, goodness, and beauty. In a word, we instrumentalize them.” Put another way, “technology is not ‘dumb’ . . . such that its first human significance comes in and through a use that is subsequent or external to the thing in its original constitution as a thing. Rather, technology . . . already bears an anthropology.” Such an understanding, taken to heart, would have profound effects on how the Church employs the various technologies present in the world for its evangelization efforts and what the Church might say to help people navigate their use of such technologies.

Related to this lesson was the lesson that nothing can be indifferent to God or his love made flesh in the Incarnation and extended through time and space by the Church. Schindler often repeated that there is a Catholic way of holding a pencil. By this Schindler was not suggesting that a Catholic would hold a pencil at a different angle than a non-Catholic. Indeed, the Catholic way of holding a pencil may appear by all external measures to be the same as the “secular” way of holding a pencil. But interiorly it would be radically different. For Schindler, Catholicism affects everything: the political order, economics, sexual relations, and our use of technology. As he wrote, “God and the love of God revealed in Christ through the Church must make a difference to everything, to every entity and every act, including every human cognitive and voluntary act, all the time. Nothing in the cosmos is or can be indifferent to God or indeed love, ultimately to the love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ through the Church.”

Schindler also helped me change my view of man and demonstrated to me how profoundly my previous understanding of man had been shaped by liberal assumptions. I was a good and obedient liberal who thought of man first as an individual abstracted from and autonomous of others. Schindler showed me how wrong that was. Quoting from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Schindler wrote that “human beings have a ‘constitutive social nature,’ and that ‘the essence and existence of man are constitutively related to God. . . .’” As Schindler puts it, again turning to the Compendium, man’s relationship and ordering to God “is not something that comes afterwards and is not added from the outside. The whole of man’s life is a quest and a search for God. . . . [M]an of his inmost nature is a capacity for God.” And “[i]ndividuality emerges from within community and is always already an expression of community, even as individuality itself conditions and is presupposed by the original meaning of community.”

This understanding of man being constitutively related to God and others has important implications—implications that carry over into the world of politics and economics. This is why Schindler was such a trenchant critic of modern democratic liberalism. Schindler ultimately convinced me of the deep flaws at the heart of America and liberal democracy. Liberalism purports to be neutral and attempts to establish a state “conceived as an essentially juridical order: a state taking its purpose to be the protection of rights even as it understands rights primarily in terms of immunity form coercion.” We can fill that neutral state with good or bad, according to liberalism’s champions.

But, while Schindler was quick to recognize the unique and laudable achievements of liberal democracy, he also saw its darker side: claiming to be putatively neutral, it was weighed down by bad metaphysics and anthropology. Schindler wrote that the “liberal-juridical state, in its putative purely political or formal meaning, bears a hidden metaphysical logic that undermines the good that is intended in the key ideas involved in bringing this state into existence in the first place.” Schindler argued that “no state, not even the liberal-juridical state, can avoid taking a stand relative to the whole of the human being ordered toward God in both the temporal and eternal, earthly and heavenly, public and ‘private,’ spheres of existence. Every state, in its exercise of authority, will of necessity embed judgments with respect to the nature of religion in its implications for the destiny of man and the cosmos.”

And the judgments embedded in liberalism are lies about the human person—primarily because liberalism does not conceive of humans first as persons who receive their being from God but as individuals who are separated from the various relationships that are constitutive of the person.

Schindler also taught me that when we live consonantly with the filial obedience that is our destiny as created beings, we allow time and space for the most necessary of things. Schindler wrote that:

contemplation and silence are not matters of inactivity. It is not as though contemplation signals a contrast with creative action, such that these are at root two different kinds of acts meant at best to alternate with one another. On the contrary, contemplative letting be is the inmost form of creaturely activity as such. Patience is not the absence of activity but, in the words of T.S. Eliot, the still point of the turning world, where the dance begins, and is.

Schindler opened up for me that contemplation and receptivity are not forms of passivity but are what we are most fundamentally called to as creatures.

As I said at the beginning, these lessons were not mere abstractions for Schindler. I have never met a man in whom theory and practice were so perfectly wed. Schindler didn’t just speak about contemplation; he contemplated. He didn’t simply speak of all being as gift; he, like Chesterton, lived with a childlike wonder where everything was gift. He was one of the most deeply humane and funny men I’ve ever met. He was a wonderful example that God does not ask us to check our personality at the door, but works and builds upon our natures in moving us towards Him.

My last time seeing Schindler was in April when our mutual friend, Clinton Froscher, and I were able to have a long, leisurely dinner together on Capitol Hill. The conversation ranged from updates on our families to the state of the Church and the world to predictions about the upcoming Notre Dame season. And there was so much laughter. Schindler was deadly serious but also deadly funny; even as Rome burned, he could see all of Rome’s ironies and ridiculousness.

A few vignettes will further drive home the point that Schindler lived what he taught. A dozen years ago, a priest-friend told me that he wanted to read Schindler’s Heart of the World, Center of the Church: Communio Ecclesiology, Liberalism, and Liberation (Eerdmans, 1996), for a thesis he was writing on critiques of liberalism. I bought the priest a copy, brought it to a breakfast with Schindler on Capitol Hill, and asked him to inscribe it. I thought Schindler would quickly write a note and sign his name. Instead, Schindler took several minutes, closing his eyes, to ponder what he would write. Only then did he write out a note and sign his name. It is a small example, but emblematic.

Schindler’s childlike wonder was exemplified on those occasions we watched a rare Notre Dame victory together. There was Schindler jumping off my couch, almost dancing with glee, turning to high-five me after a successful play. Schindler was giddy like a schoolboy that the Irish were sticking it to the opposition. And after these game watches, our goodbyes would often last 30 or more minutes, door ajar to let him out, as we continued to talk about the game and life, Schindler thinking of one more thing to share before he left.

Nine years ago, when my wife was pregnant with our fourth child, we both kept coming back to the notion that we should ask Schindler to be our son’s godfather. It was perhaps an unorthodox choice. Godparents are usually not seventy years older than their godchildren. But we thought he was a fitting choice, given his influence on us and the model he could provide our son. So we asked Schindler to be the godfather. Schindler didn’t answer immediately. He considered it, mulled it over, and took it to his spiritual director. After a week or two, he got back to us. He would do it. He and his spiritual director had discussed it and they determined that Schindler could do good as godfather here and, with God’s grace, in the next life. Again, it was emblematic of the sort of thought and deliberation Schindler put into everything.

Schindler would want us to pray for him. And we should—and for his family, friends, and students who were loved by him and loved him with such depth. But we also trust in Christ’s promises and have the hope that Schindler will soon be contemplating the face of the God of whom he taught us all so much and will be praying for his Godson and all of us.

Requiescat in pace, dear friend and great teacher.


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About Conor Dugan 15 Articles
Conor B. Dugan is a husband, father of four, and attorney who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

3 Comments

  1. An interesting narration of a life well-lived…a model for all of us. It clearly demonstrates the power of grace coursing through the Church as mediated through Christ.

  2. This is such an incredibly beautiful tribute to a friend and mentor. I was deeply moved by your love for the godfather of your child. It was your mutual love for each other that struck me that was evident throughout your writing. Thank you for it. I was so touching.

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